The British Empire had no obvious beginning, and – up to now – no clear-cut end. In my books on the subject I’ve suggested a few possible dates for the effective end of the enterprise – moments when it became clear that it could not carry on as it was. They included 1947 (Indian independence), 1956 (Suez), 1967 (withdrawal from ‘East of Suez’), 1973 (accession to the European Common Market); plus several earlier ones, like 1857 (the Indian Mutiny), 1902 (the Boer War), and 1918 (the end of WW1, its effect on the Empire disguised by her new ‘mandates’ and her main rivals’ retreat into isolation). I’ve also considered the idea that the Empire has not, even now, really come to an ‘end’ at all, in view of the traces it has left behind it: the Commonwealth, language, cricket, Jacob Rees-Mogg. To a tidy-minded historian, wanting to wrap his subject up finally, this must seem a little unsatisfactory. But then the same could be said of its predecessor, the great Roman Empire; which similarly simply faded out to almost nothing, even after Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall’.
There’s a reason for this; which is that the British Empire was never the conscious ‘enterprise’ or ‘project’ it is often painted as, but on the contrary was the product of a loose combination of extraneous factors – primarily burgeoning capitalism, but with religion, proto-fascism, science, liberalism, the public schools and many others added to the mix – creating a number of political, social and economic phenomena that were easier to grasp and interpret as a single big one, with a big name – the ‘e’ or ‘i’-words – than to try to untangle and explain in their true complexity. Hence my failure in my books – including the latest one, Britain’s Contested History: Lessons for Patriots – to give straightforward answers to straightforward questions – chiefly ‘was the Empire a good or a bad thing? but also ‘when did it end? – and instead to take refuge in what appears as obfuscation.
The Lion’s Share: a History of British Imperialism went into its sixth edition last year. That didn’t reach any conclusion about when the ‘end’ of the Empire was, either. The last couple of years of politics in Britain, however, have made me wonder whether we haven’t reached that end right now. For the British Empire consisted not only of the large swathe of territories Britain owned or ruled (supposedly) overseas, but of a complex of values and ideals– not always mutually consistent – that were felt to define it. Brexit, although it was supposed to return the country to its ‘global’ (i.e. ‘imperial’) days, together with the economic collapse and incipient authoritarianism that are coming in its wake, seem to me to be doing far more harm to those values and ideas than simply getting out of India and Africa did. And the manner in which they are being implemented – ‘farcical’ may be the best word to describe them: Johnson, Farage, Rees-Mogg, Truss, Conservative party members – gives a very special flavour to this particular ‘decline and fall’; and will make a fitting ending to any seventh edition of The Lion’s Share, if I’m ever asked – and survive – to produce it.
(The heading, of course, is TS Eliot: ‘This is the way the world ends…’)